Aerospace and defense technology requires high degrees of reliability and durability in hostile and ever-changing environments. Thermoelectric generators [TEGs] meet these qualifications and can also serve as a valuable cost-cutting, time-saving solution. Find out what research has been conducted recently in the field as well as applications of the TEGs in defense and aerospace fields.
Thermoelectric technology has the potential to provide sustainable energy alternatives and revolutionize the industry. Interest and research in this field have spiked despite limited existing applications.
In 2012, chemists, mechanical engineers, and material scientists from Northwestern University and Michigan State University identified a thermoelectric material that optimizes energy production. This material is based on the semiconductor telluride and can convert approximately 15 to 20 percent of heat waste to electrical energy. This new material is environmentally stable and efficient enough for practical use in military and industrial technology.
Findings that improve the efficiency and wide-spread practicality of thermoelectric energy have driven growth in this industry. IDTechEx projects that the market will experience significant growth over the next decade, reaching $875 million by 2023.
Commercial and military aircraft often apply thermoelectric module technology to wireless sensors designed for condition, environment, and structural monitoring. These monitoring activities may entail detecting cracks from standard wear-and-tear or damage from bird collisions. They do not require any maintenance which can help cut costs and wasted time. The generators can also be used to transmit sensor readings to a central location.
For example, one of Lockheed Martin’s projects developed a predictive maintenance system for an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that aligns with their Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS). The predictive maintenance system assists aircraft technicians by optimizing maintenance processes and anticipating impending structural damages. The thermoelectric generator powered sensors work by exploiting temperature differences between the turbine engine bearings and ambient air, or the passenger cabin and outside air. Each F-35 has a Health and Usage Monitoring System (HUMS) component that allows the aircraft to monitor its own systems. This data is then automatically transferred to the ALIS.
Space exploration is dependent on the reliable operation of sophisticated and innovative instruments in an inhospitable environment where ambient temperatures can range from +86°F to -197°F. Radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTG) satisfy these constraints and when used in conjunction with an energy storage device such as a rechargeable battery or supercapacitor, can be especially reliable.
In 1997, the Cassini was launched into Saturn’s orbit to study the planet’s rings, moons, and magnetosphere. The device was powered by three RTGs until 2017 when the probe crashed into Saturn. As with Saturn, Pluto’s distance from the Sun makes it impossible for devices to operate via solar power. Therefore, RTGs were also used to power New Horizons, the first spacecraft to closely observe Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. This probe was launched in 2006 and remains operational to date.
Curiosity is a rover that was created by NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory to explore the Gale Crater on Mars. The rover has remained operational since 2011 and continues to provide data on climate, geology, and the role of water and microbial life in the planet’s history.
A RTG fueled by plutonium-238 is used to operate the rover’s arm, instruments, wheels, computers, and radio. Temperature differences between the nuclear material and the cold space conditions generate sufficient and continuous voltage of 110 watts to power the rover for years. Meanwhile, two rechargeable lithium-ion batteries serve as a backup power source when demand exceeds output levels.
The Curiosity rover is also equipped with a ChemCam TE module developed by II-VI Marlow. This is the first active remote-sensing device of its kind. It works by using laser pulses to vaporize thin layers of materials from rocks or soil and three CCD spectrometers to analyze the types of atoms excited by the beam. It has been instrumental in the collection of data on the composition of Mars’ surface and atmosphere.
The ChemCam TE module is not the only II-VI Marlow product to further space exploration. II-VI Marlow’s thermoelectric products are already extensively used in space. And as a supplier to U.S. and international space and defense agencies, II-VI Marlow offers a team of engineers and scientists who develop superior quality solutions, tested and qualified to specified requirements.
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